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Book Review: Why Democracy Failed

Reading my last political book was a hard slog. While I gained lots of useful insights into how the world really works, I found “Political Order and Political Decay” not an enjoyable read. It had quite a few academic-type words I had never encountered before and more than a few topics that I could not fully understand. While I really need to re-read this book someday, I just might not.

In contrast, “Why Democracy Failed” is an easy read. But that does not mean its author, Allan Milne Lees, stayed away from difficult concepts. He tackled them fully by getting sentences and paragraphs to flow well. I seldom needed to reread any of this work. This author has done most of the work to communicate with his readers. I only needed a few hours to go through this book of about 30,000 words.

For those of us who believe western democracy is failing and cannot be fixed, we should read “Why Democracy Failed.” The author makes many of our points so well that we should consider his approach and wordsmithing in our arguments to make our points.

For those of us who believe western democracy is repairable — and I include those of you who advocate for anyone but Mr. Trump as president as “the solution”—you too should challenge yourself with this book. Can you really say the American system is working well after this author explains why democracy is dying?

One of the author’s main points is that the bulk of the population is incapable of understanding the nature of our society well enough to cast a wise vote in an election. He came up with these two figures: 86% and 14%, with the former being “unwise” and the latter “wise.” I’m not sure where he got these figures from, but my anecdotal experience is that I maybe can have a reasonable political discussion with only one out of seven people in my life. The 86% in my world already have their right answers — and there is no way my perspectives will ever have any influence on their thinking.

The author so correctly points out that the political parties, to win elections, ignore the 14% and cater to the 86%. Therefore social issues are framed in a simple way for the simple minded. But social issues are much more complicated than that, so simple solutions made by simple political leaders elected by a simple population often do not work out very well. Despite band-aid solutions, knee-jerk reactions, and bad legislation that can’t be changed, the 86% still crave simplicity. There is no need for intellect.

I have encountered a few thinkers who believe that the electorate needs to be better educated. This author does not even pretend to go there. He believes that the 86% really don’t want to be better educated to take their civic duties more seriously. They are more interested in following celebrities and watching football games. And they already have the right answers.

Rather, the author advocates for more direct democracy. I have encountered thinkers like this as well. So I started gathering, from the back of my mind, all those arguments I have built over the years to prove that direct democracy is a foolish way to govern. Did I ever get a surprise! The author had also brought those same arguments into his book. In essence, he also proves that direct democracy, as we know it today, is a foolish way to govern.

So he posits that we need a new version of direct democracy. What he proposed is that the 14% have all the voting rights. He even goes further to suggest that on some social issues, only those with the right qualifications have the right to vote. For example, the decision to repair a bridge should belong to civil engineers, not to people who know nothing about bridge maintenance. So not all of the 14% will be voting on all issues. Maybe this system could work!

Of course, this brings up the question: “Who decides who belongs to the 14%—and thus gets the right to vote?” I can see many of the 86%ers in my life believing they belong to the 14%—and it is I who should be cast into the 86% with no voting rights! This political division will be a hard re-arrangement of society to make, indeed.

The author is somewhat vague in the construction of this new direct democracy, saying that mechanisms need to be thought out, tried, and refined to build a truly direct democratic system of governance. I was impressed that he understands that the next system of governance needs to be more dynamic, ready to adjust for when society changes. But who decides which mechanisms are worthy of a trial? Who determines whether they are effective? And who makes the changes if the mechanisms require changes? Of course, we could argue those 14% should make these decisions, but we haven’t yet determined who belongs to the 14%.

The author is a realist. He recognizes that the 86% are not likely to relinquish their voting rights to 14% who are supposedly smarter than the 86%. So what’s the workaround for this social change?

The author suggests to just let western society decay and collapse. After that collapse, the thinkers of that future will concoct another system of governance, using knowledge gained of why our representative democracy failed in our current day. Direct democracy will be the obvious solution. The 14% will be identified and given the responsibility of governance. The 86% will acquiesce to the wisdom of the 14% because this new society will be so much better than the previous dystopia, if not our current society. This is similar to the Middle Ages when common people really didn’t have much say in governance.

I would much prefer a process where we didn’t have to go through some kind of collapse to re-organize governance of our society. A collapse can mean civil war, anarchy by mobs, cruel oligarchies, economic stagnation, intellectual stagnation, arbitrary justice, or any combination of the these social disorders. I believe we should try to avoid the historical way to re-order society. And I’m not so sure the social engineers after the collapse will create a society that the author is calling for. Should we really trust the future victors?

Yes, I am critical of the author’s solution. Unless he can explain himself better, I don’t see this version of direct democracy working much better than today’s versions of direct democracy. The 14% would most likely become another political class trying to protect their status, influence, and power. The 86% would feel disenfranchised—even if they are better governed. It would be great if the author provided an example or two of what this democracy could look like. But he left it vague.

Despite my disagreement of the author’s solution, I still highly recommend reading this book. Not only does the author explain why western democracy is failing and offer an alternative, but this book is interspersed with all sorts of observations of human nature and how they relate to political affairs. For example, the author often refers to our hunter-gatherer genetics and how they affect current society, which is no longer a hunter-gatherer system. The author says we must understand this nature to better our society. And he takes us through a few more interesting tangents. We may agree or disagree with the author. But because of the excellent writing, we readers do not need to work that hard to figure out the point the author is trying to make. For sure, he is making us think—and there is nothing wrong with that.

And yes, we should have a thorough discussion about the role of direct democracy in our society. And the author’s point that most of us don’t really understand the issues needs to be taken seriously.

Published on Medium 2020

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